How to survive Christmas burnout…the busy teacher’s guide…

The festive season – there’s nothing quite like it! And aren’t you lucky? Getting all that time off…Here’s a handy survival guide…

The end of the Autumn / Winter term – whether you’re based in a Primary or Secondary setting, has a momentum like no other. Whether you’ve navigated the political tensions of casting Mary, sheep and trees in the Nativity play, or coaxed GCSE and A Level groups into some sort of semblance of readiness for their mocks, you’re most likely giddy with relief that the end is in sight.

Half the academic year is crammed into that one term – or so it feels. It starts wit ha heatwave, and ends in a darkness of exhaustion brightened by Christmas jumpers and fuelled by sugar and caffeine. Not even the heartwarming tale of Scrooge and Tiny Tim will kindle a flicker of empathy in the hardened cynics of Year 9.

No time of year is as insistent as this darkest one, on cheer. And we pull it out of the bag – whether we like it or not – ‘for the kiddies’, for the parents, for our colleagues. The festive season is loaded with imperatives, of jollity, gratitude, peace and love amid the relentless steam-train of events and deadlines. Reports, parents evenings, concerts, plays, assemblies, and services.

And then just as we switch off the smartboards and hang up our laptops, the steady drum-beat of Christmas and New Year beat faster and louder. The preparations, the shopping, the online ordering, card writing, the journeys, the meet-ups. It’s the holidays!!

And before you know it, we barely pause from the relentlessness of the term before the relentlessness of family obligations and traditions takes over. Then suddenly emerging from a Quality-Street-induced coma in front of the Dr Who Christmas Special, wondering what we missed…

It can be hard to unwind. We can identify so strongly with our job that it’s hard to step away from it, and yet step away we must. For some, it’s easier to do by simply getting on a plane and changing into swimwear…but it’s not necessarily as affordable as it once was with rent and interest rates, and the cost of living being as it is. Equally the festive period and its familial obligations tends to squat on the time we have pretty solidly.

Though I left hands-on school life three years ago now, I cannot say I have mastered the zen practice of work-life balance, despite in my coaching helping others get close to theirs. It’s not a job-based, school-based issue. It’s to do with my own relationship with myself. I tend to have a busy mind – my stream of consciousness tends to have a lot of tributaries! I am a perfectionist when it comes to my performance as a speaker and trainer – meaning I pressure myself to keep up with far more conferences, articles, books, and research to update and freshen what I do…

What can we do to preserve ourselves? To ensure that the winter break allows us some genuine respite and deeper-level rest? To make sure our batteries recharge…and our zest is restored.

Exert some agency and control – make a plan! Get a schema for the holiday. How many days of nothing-ness. When to compartmentalise the action. How to honour time for connection. Remind yourself of Dan Siegel’s Healthy Mind Platter. Seven elements for ‘optimal brain matter’ that we can use as a framework for looking after ourselves:

  • Sleep – have you had regular, sufficient, refreshing sleep? What got in the way? How can you work to restore and rebalance good sleep patterns?
    • Physical time – you may, or may not, have a term-time lifestyle that enables you to incorporate the right amount and quality of physical activity. How can you walk more, aim for close to an hour’s physical activity of some type or another each day? Can you do that in bite-sized amounts to be able to bring in that element to your life sustainably, even when you’re up against it in school. What type of physical movement would most help you get release, feel better within your body? Is it stretching, relaxing and releasing? Is it lifting, building strength, or aerobic exercise like dance, running, cycling, skipping, team sports? How can you dial up the impact – get a double whammy? Eg exercise whilst out in nature? Whilst listening to uplifting music?
    • Focus time – this has probably been amply catered for by the imperatives of term – planning, marking, delivering lessons!
    • Time in – this one is often neglected. This is creating time to quietly reflect, focusing on feelings, thoughts, sensations. Checking in with oneself…seriously being curious about how we actually are, what’s going on for us. Shining a light on that. This might be an act of meditation or mindfulness, journalling, or simply sitting and contemplating over a coffee and making some lull time for that. As the term goes on, we can tend to treat our brains and bodies like machines, and push ourselves even beyond our limits. The brain is unable to integrate.
    • Down-time – being un-focused. Allowing ourselves to slow down and relax. This may look like laziness, but it is crucial to allowing the brain to recharge. Don’t let the limitless access to devices and all they have to offer crowd this out. We think it’s down-time – but it’s not – it’s our eye time. We’re selling out our attention and it does not help build our own attentional focus for when we need to perform. Down-time is not checking work emails whenever there’s a lull in the action!
    • Connecting time – with our people…our chosen family, and our family. Being present, in-person. Giving our time and attention to each other, being appreciative. Notice how hard it is to do any of these things when we are truly depleted. Connecting also with nature, the world around us, in an open and benevolent way.
    • Play time – being creative, spontaneous, open to new experiences. Engaged and challenged in a light-touch way. Making new connections in our own brains, and enhancing connections with others. Playfulness is a great indicator of the resilience of a relationship.

For more information: https://drdansiegel.com/healthy-mind-platter/

To hear Dan Siegel speak on the Healthy Mind Platter in 5 minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EQ2tzHl3Ks

Post-term time detox…

The term will have wrestled your ideal lifestyle out of shape somewhat…Where have you compromised? Where do you need to stock up? Take this seriously…Tune in to where you’re at, and address it.

Notice, how hard or easy is it for you to stop? We instinctively take to our beds and rest when our body is ill, when we have a temperature, a headache, a painful stomach. But we are much less responsive to the inflammation and feverishness of our activity levels. Notice – what is being unoccupied like for you? Do you still check work emails in the holidays? Do you set any boundaries around that?

How much has this past term taken out of you? Has it taken you into states of hyper-arousal…over-revved, always ‘on’, scattered in your activity? Has it taken you into states of hypo-arousal, where you find that you’ve ended up being catatonic? Needing to be in a state of collapse, or finding yourself a state of collapse –eg in your use of alcohol. Have you found yourself becoming cynical, switching off or avoiding certain aspects of challenge in your job…Have you had bouts of irritability – where you might have lashed out at someone, or wrestled with deep-seated feelings of frustration? Try to face how it’s really been. Check in with yourself with courage and self-compassion.

Are there any legacy difficult feelings that you are sitting with as a result of either friction with colleagues, pupils, parents? Or with having to cover for colleagues, for instance where long term absence or sickness or an inability to appoint has necessitated extra work? Sit with and be present to those feelings.

  • Write down your series of comments about what the issues for you there are on one page.
  • On a second page, write down what you have learned from the experience.
  • On a third page, once you have weighed up the costs and benefits, consider your action points. What’s the call to action from the feelings eg of irritation, frustration, injustice? Who do you need to speak to? What questions do you need to ask? How can you flip your issues into questions so that you can lean on the greater psychological safety of curious enquiry, rather than the energy of complaint?

Making festive home-life and family time a safe haven…

It’s so easy to say yes, and so hard to say no during the festive period. Before you know it, your holiday-time calendar is as full as during term…shuttling here and there, fitting in this, that, and the other friend or relative.

Boundaries.

  • Preserve your safe haven. Allocate some days or evenings to non-negotiable down-time. And hold your boundaries with those times. Prepare a firm but kind set-piece response that you can bring out of the bag when you need to – with no caveats, no elaborate excuses, no defensive explanations. A simple boundary:

“Thanks so much for asking me – but I’m afraid I am maxed out and unable to make it. Hope you have a wonderful time without me.”

  • Aim for quality rather than quantity connection – or quality and quantity connection. If your term has left you feeling a little or a lot burned out…then avoid the emotional labour of being around toxic people. It’s not just the drain of their presence…it’s the toxic residue of the anger and irritation they leave behind.
  • Look ahead. Work out your own list of ‘Who’s naughty or nice’…and make a plan to either avoid, resize the contact with them appropriately, or to minimise the negative impacts and costs of being in their presence.
  • Which are the people you would really miss contact with? These are the friends and family who really nurture you with their presence. You leave feeling stocked up with attention, affection, warm feelings, appreciation, gratitude. In their company you feel your autonomy is respected. Dial up and prioritise arrangements with them.
  • Who are the people who drain you and deplete you? What is it about them that is so depleting? Do they exploit your good will? In which case, double down on your boundaries and the saying of the magic word – which is NO! Do you have relatives for whom whatever to do or give, or bring, is never quite enough? Who do their best to make some passive-aggressive comment that indicates they are somehow short-changed? Sometimes there’s a pattern to the sort of thing they will comment on. Maybe it’s something about how you’ve aged, or what weight you are carrying? Maybe they use comparison, eg barely acknowledging your gift and raving about something your sibling or cousin gave them? If it’s foreseeable, armour yourself up…It’s like going on holiday to Siberia and only packing bikinis if you expect warmth from these people. Go light touch and non-verbal in calling them out… ‘Ouch!’, or ask them to have a moment and repeat what they just said… ‘Sorry, What was that you just said?’ And when they do repeat it, say ‘Ah. Ok. Wow. I thought that was what you said.’ Pause, let some silence do the work. Hold the awkwardness. And then move on. It’s a less confrontational call-out. OR is there a space for some humour around it…depending on the individual, can you make a joke around their typical asks – to defuse the load of it a little?
  • Know your walk-aways…Do you have a toxic aunt or uncle, sibling, or in-law who just loves to rile you or Daily Mail you? You know – they just love poking the intergenerational tiger….They can be guaranteed to throw the grenade on the groaning table of the family gathering…. You might be in your 20s and ripe for the ‘Snowflake’ conversation. Or maybe you have a child who is trans, or gay, or taking a stand with the environment, or with pronouns. Maybe they think mental health is all a big fuss over nothing…Or maybe you have really strong feelings about certain social or political standpoints. Perhaps they want to have a go about teacher’s strikes, and all those lovely holidays…And they know it’s going to be a sore point…and they will come for you – to liven things up…Again, have a plan. And if it involves your children or teens and they are old enough to take it on, enable them to act on their boundaries in a safe way. Making your excuses and going to the toilet to get some distance from it. Taking a break for some air. Maybe they are going to make conversational micro-aggressions…Be strategic about how you are going to take them on. ‘Thank you. But I’m not up for politics on Christmas day.’ ‘I don’t feel comfortable talking about this.’ ‘Not today.’ ‘I’m going to take a break from this.’ ‘We’re never going to agree on this. So I’m dropping the rope.’ These are ways of taking control and acting unilaterally on your boundary and showing very clearly that you see what’s going on and it’s not OK with you.
  • Decide what should stay and what should go in your Christmas routines. Don’t be afraid to renegotiate these things. If you say yes to handwrapping every single pig in blanket, home-made mince pies, or having to write 50 different Christmas cards…how can you Kondo Christmas? What brings you joy? And what brings you stress. Where are your opportunities for stream-lining or inviting others to come on bard meaningfully and really take some of the weight off you? Sending out a social media greeting and making a donation to a charitable cause you are passionate about instead was one way forward.
  • Ring-fence the time and prioritise the tasks you need to do to feel satisfied that you are prepared for the term ahead. And plan when to do it in a way that maximises your time and energy. Use a timer so that the work does not spread unchecked.
  • Ensure you have a suitable out of office auto-response on your email so that you manage expectations. This is VITAL if you are a member of SLT – and especially if you have a brief for Safeguarding. You are not the fourth emergency service. Sign post parents or pupils to the appropriate sources of hands-on help in the holidays. Empower them, and avoid perpetuating the magical thinking that the school is a one-stop-shop for everything.

What here has made you think? How are you feeling about the endings of term, and the start of the holiday? If you are dreading the run-up to Christmas, you’re by no means alone… These dark days are true triggers for mental health challenges for many of us. The pressure of enforced harmony, togetherness, the insistent jollity. It can be hard.

Trying to ‘make’ people happy – which is an inherently losing prospect.

What rang true here for you? What made you laugh? What landed with ready recognition?

What ideas do you want to preserve? What strategies will you use? What might you do as a result?

Wishing all my colleagues, contacts and readers in the world of education, a restful and rewarding holiday, peace, love, health and happiness for the New Year.

With gratitude and appreciation,

Emma.

Ways to work with Emma.

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